Aphrodite: The Goddess of Love and Beauty
Aphrodite: The Goddess of Love and Beauty
You know Aphrodite as the Greek patroness of love and beauty, but how much do you really know about the fairest goddess of them all?
Aphrodite, known as Venus to the Romans, was a favorite goddess of the ancient Greeks.
Worshipped for her ideal beauty, Aphrodite held sway over matters of love, desire, and sexual pleasures.
But the stories of Aphrodite aren’t all great romances. The Greeks knew that great love could be the source of great suffering.
Aphrodite’s charms won her the affections of many, from the greatest gods to the most common men. But for all the adoration she received, Aphrodite was not immune from misfortune, jealousy, and betrayal.
From the strange circumstances of her birth to how she ended the Age of Heroes, here’s everything you need to know about the goddess Aphrodite!
The Curious Birth of Aphrodite
A typical timeline of Greek mythology begins with the Titans and continues with the Olympians. But the unusual origin of Aphrodite lies somewhere in between these two generations of immortals.
Aphrodite’s story begins with Uranus, the first king of the Titans. Uranus was a primordial deity of the sky and the heavens who married Gaia, the embodiment of Mother Earth.
Uranus and Gaia gave birth to the Titans, the first generation of gods.
Gaia, however, grew angry with her spouse. Chronos was willing to challenge Uranus, so his mother gave him a scythe of adamantine.
The Titan lay in wait until his father came to his mother’s bed. Naked, Uranus was at his most vulnerable.
With a swipe of his sickle, Chronos castrated his father. Defeated, Uranus’ power diminished and Chronos became king.
Chronos threw the severed genitals away, and they landed in the sea. As soon as they hit the water, it began to foam and froth.
From the sea foam, a figure emerged. Aphrodite was born, a motherless being born after the Titans but before the Olympians.
The goddess of beauty made her way toward Cyprus, where the Homeric hymns say the Horai, the female personifications of the seasons, awaited her. They dressed her in gold and flowers and led her to the gods.
The gods were instantly enamoured by this new arrival. The goddesses embraced her and the gods argued over which would win the right to marry her.
Unlucky in Love
While the gods vied for her attention, Aphrodite seemed to have made up her mind quickly. Her connection to Ares would be a constant in her myths, although it often caused her pain.
Long before, Hera had given birth to Hephaestus. He had been abandoned because he was born lame and misshapen.
Hephaestus was taken in by Thetis and Eurynome and had developed his skills as a master smith and metalworker.
Embittered by his mother’s abandonment, Hephaestus began to send gifts of his own making to Mount Olympus. The most impressive of these was a golden throne.
The moment she sat on the chair, however, it magically bound Hera.
The binding of Hera happened to occur at the same time as Zeus was set to decide on the matter of Aphrodite’s marriage. He promised the goddess’s hand to whichever god was able to bring Hephaestus to Olympus.
Aphrodite agreed, believing that the god of war was more than up to the task of overpowering the crippled outcast.
Working as a smith had made the lame god stronger than Ares expected. With showers of flaming metal, the smith drove the warrior away.
Dionysus went to Hephaestus next, but made no move to overcome him. Instead he proposed a truce.
Hephaestus, he reasoned, would win Aphrodite himself if he went to Olympus willingly and released his mother. After many drinks with the god of wine, Hephaestus agreed.
Zeus agreed that Hephaestus had rightfully won the hand of Aphrodite. The goddess of beauty was wed to the deformed god of laborers.
Theirs was not a happy marriage, and Aphrodite never forgot her love for Ares. Through the ages, their affair continued.
The lovers were not able to keep their affair secret, and Hephaestus learned of it from Helios. The embarrassment of Aphrodite and Ares is one of the most memorable scenes in Greek mythology.
After making preparations, Hephaestus told his wife that he was leaving to visit earth. When he left his palace, Aphrodite invited Ares.
As soon as the two were in bed together, Hephaestus sprung his trap. Unbreakable chains dropped down over the lovers, trapping them in the most compromising position.
Hephaestus was not satisfied yet. He called to the other gods to see how foolish his wife and the god of war looked.
The indignity was too much for Aphrodite to bear, and she divorced her husband soon after. By the time of the Trojan War, Homer refers to her as the consort of Ares and gives Hephaestus another wife.
The beautiful goddess had a history of infidelity, though, and even to Ares she was not always faithful.
Various myths tell of her affairs with nearly all the major gods including Hermes, Dionysus, and Poseidon. These were usually short-lived, much different than her long relationship with Ares.
Ares himself was no better. He cheated on her, as well, and caused her great heartache in doing so.
But Aphrodite is remembered more for the affairs she had with mortal men. Sadly, these ended in tragedy.
One of her most famous human loves was Adonis.
Aphrodite had cursed Adonis’s mother for disrespecting her and forced the girl to fall in love with her own father. But when the unfortunate woman gave birth to a son, Aphrodite was taken in by the boy’s beauty and innocence.
She attempted to hide the boy from the other gods, but upon seeing the child Persephone too fell in love with him.
Zeus ordered the goddesses to share custody of Adonis, although he came to prefer the company of Aphrodite.
These two were not the only deities to fall in love with the abnormally handsome young man. Apollo and Heracles were both said to have taken the boy as a lover, too.
The story of Adonis would end tragically. Furious with jealousy, Ares took the form of a wild boar and gored the young man to death.
Aphrodite’s grief was so profound that it became an annual event. Sappho described an elaborate feast of mourning for Adonis taking place on Lesbos each year, and by the 5th century BC the women of Athens held a tribute to him at midsummer.
Anchises was another mortal lover of Aphrodite. The goddess seduced him while disguised as a foreign princess.
When she became pregnant with their son, Aeneas, Aphrodite revealed her true identity. She warned him not to boast of the affair, but the mortal man was unable to resist telling people that he had won the affections of the goddess of beauty herself.
When Zeus heard of this he was enraged. He struck the man with a thunderbolt for bragging in such a way.
Anchises survived, but was forever disabled by the thunder strike. By the time his son Aeneas fought in the Trojan War he could no longer walk.
Aphrodite was the goddess of love, beauty, and sexual pleasure. But while she took her share of all these things, her own love affairs often ended in misfortune.
Aphrodite and Troy
One of the great legends in which Aphrodite played a major role was the saga of the Trojan War. From the beginning, the goddess was intertwined with the human elements of the conflict.
When Eris sent a golden apple to Olympus that was addressed to “the fairest,” the goddess of beauty assumed it was meant for her. Unfortunately, Athena and Hera made the same assumption.
Zeus declared himself to have too many conflicts of interest to make a judgement, so he determined to use a mortal man to settle the matter. Paris, a prince of Troy, would decide which goddess deserved the apple.
Appearing before him, each goddess made promised to win the man’s favor. Aphrodite made the best offer she could as the goddess of love – the heart of the most beautiful woman in the world.
With Aphrodite as the winner, Paris began his affair with Helen. Unfortunately, Helen was married to the king of Sparta, and the angry ruler called upon his allies to avenge the abduction of his wife.
From the beginning, the gods chose sides. Aphrodite had more than one reason to support the Trojans. Troy was the city of Paris and of her son Aeneas.
The goddess took a personal interest in the human heroes of Troy. In The Iliad she appeared to save Paris from a killing blow on the battlefield, transporting him safely to his own bed-chamber.
The same night she appeared to Helen. Tired of the bloodshed and recognizing her own role in it, the queen had forsaken Paris.
Aphrodite tried to persuade her in disguise as an old woman, but Helen was even more disgusted by the goddess’s attempt at manipulation.
Finally, Aphrodite threatened the beautiful queen. Reminding her that the favor of a goddess can be lost faster than it is one, she convinced Helen that it was in her own best interests to resume her affair with Paris.
Aphrodite’s next foray onto the battlefield would nearly cause her doom.
Athena, who had sided with the Greeks, told Diomedes that Aphrodite was the weakest of the immortals. Seeing an opportunity when she attempted to rescue Aeneas from the fray, the soldier lunged at her with a spear.
From the wound flowed ichor, the blood of gods, and Aphrodite was so shocked by the wound that she dropped her son on the battlefield.
She was saved by Apollo, who was also aiding the Trojans. Ares gave her his chariot so she could escape to the safety of Mount Olympus.
As she fled, Diomedes shouted a final taunt, telling her to stick to her realm of beauty and leave the fighting to those who did it best.
Finally, Zeus allowed the gods to fight amongst themselves. That great battle saw Aphrodite and her lover face off against Athena and Hera.
Ares and Athena fought, a battle between the two greatest deities of war. Athena was victorious, leaving Ares stunned and wounded.
In her usual role through the war, Aphrodite came in to take him from the fighting. But she was spotted by Hera, who called out to Athena to move against her.
Athene swept in pursuit, heart full of gladness, and caught up with her and drove a flow at her breasts with her ponderous hand, so that her knees went slack and the heart inside her. Those who both lay sprawled on the generous earth. But Athene stood above them and spoke to them in the winged words of triumph: ‘Now may all who bring their aid to the Trojans be in such case as these … as now Aphrodite came companion in arms to Ares, and faced my fury. So we should long ago have rested after our fighting once having utterly stormed the strong-founded city of Ilion.’
-Homer, Iliad 21. 402 ff
The war would not be decided in that fight, however. The gods stepped back to influence matters indirectly and left the fighting to the humans.
In one of the most horrific scenes of the war, the Trojan hero Hector was killed by Achilles. After dragging the body behind his chariot, Achilles refused to release the corpse back to King Priam for burial.
While most of the gods were horrified by this show of disrespect, as a Trojan supporter Aphrodite was especially sympathetic to Priam’s pain. She drove the Greeks away to prevent further damage to Hector’s body and anointed it with oil to preserve it until his father could come.
She would later have her revenge on Achilles. When he killed the Amazon Penthesilea, Aphrodite caused him to fall in love with the dead woman’s corpse.
In Roman mythology, Aphrodite continued to protect Aeneas long after the war had ended.
The Romans believed that Aeneas wandered for many years after the fall of Troy in search of a new home. He eventually reached Italy and the land of the Latins.
Aeneas would win their lands, aided in battle once again by his mother.
His descendants, Romulus and Remus, would eventually found a great city in Latium. The Roman people traced their lineage through them to Aphrodite herself.
The Worst Mother-in-Law on Olympus
Aphrodite’s constant companion was her son, Eros.
While Aphrodite could beguile and charm, she called upon her son to create the most powerful and lasting forms of love. With a single shot from his bow he could make anyone fall deeply in love.
Aphrodite frequently ordered her son to target a specific person. This could be a boon, but very often she used the power to enact revenge.
Psyche was a mortal princess who was renowned for her great beauty.
Eventually, people began to say that rather than being blessed with beauty, the girl was a new goddess who could rival Aphrodite.
Like many of the Olympians, Aphrodite was prone to jealousy. Having a human girl’s beauty praised as greater than her own was more than she could bear.
As she had so many times, she called on Eros to help her punish Psyche.
Aphrodite’s plan was to make the beautiful princess fall madly in love with the most hideous man on earth. Like her own marriage to Hephaestus, such an uneven pairing would bring nothing but grief and misery.
Unfortunately for Aphrodite’s schemes, Eros would fail in his task. As he readied the arrow he grazed his own finger.
Eros, the god of love, fell in love himself.
An oracle had led Psyche’s parents to believe that she would be married to a terrible monster, so when they led her to a mountaintop cave they were prepared for a funeral instead of a wedding.
Alone in the cave, however, Psyche found a lavish palace. While she could not see anyone, she could hear their voices.
Eros made himself invisible and warned her to never try to see his face, or great misfortune would befall them both.
Even though Psyche never saw her husband’s face or learned his name, the marriage was happy. Eros was overcome with the love his own arrow had brought on and lavished every luxury on his beautiful wife.
Psyche was lonely, however, and asked to see her sisters. Believing her to have been taken by a terrible monster, they were surprised at how content she was.
When she showed her sisters the great riches she enjoyed in her marriage, they grew jealous. They also grew curious, encouraging Psyche to sneak a glimpse of her husband’s face so they would know how she had become so blessed.
Fuelled by jealousy, they insisted that the reason she had not seen her husband’s face much be because he truly was a horrible monster.
That night, Psyche gave in to her curiosity. She lit a lamp after her husband had fallen asleep and armed herself with a razor blade.
Instead of a monster, she saw the perfect face of a god.
When the lamp oil spilled it burned Eros, and he was furious. Psyche had disregarded his warnings and been prepared to kill him as a monster.
Eros punished Psyche by leaving her.
Aphrodite was soon told that her son had suffered a terrible burn while consorting with a lover. She assumed he was with a nymph, but when she learned it was Psyche she was enraged.
Aphrodite scolded her son as only a mother could.
He had been disobedient to her, not only as his mother but also as his superior deity. She threatened to strip him of his powers and promote a nameless servant to godhood in his place.
Meanwhile, Psyche had been wandering the world searching for her lost husband. She eventually came to a temple of Demeter.
Demeter warned the woman that Aphrodite was searching for her and intent on punishment. Both she and Hera refused to help Psyche, however, as they did not want to risk insulting Aphrodite.
When Aphrodite failed to find Psyche on her own, she enlisted the help of Hermes. Eventually, Psyche was dragged before the goddess.
In her anger, Aphrodite assigned Psyche a series of meaningless and seemingly impossible tasks, with the goal of increasing the girl’s misery.
- She brought an enormous heap of lentils, chickpeas, millet, and other grains and ordered Psyche to sort the entire pile by morning. An army of ants took pity on Psyche and sorted the seeds for her.
- Aphrodite ordered her to obtain a tuft of fleece from a flock of golden sheep that burned with the heat of the sun. A reed that grew next to the stream whispered to her the secret way to collect the wool when it was stuck to a branch.
- She sent Psyche to collect the dangerous water of the River Styx from the mountaintop it flowed from. When the terrain proved too difficult, Zeus’s eagle flew her to the source of the water.
- Aphrodite gave her a box of makeup and commanded her to take it to Persephone in the underworld. The stones of a tower magically spoke and told her how to avoid the many dangers of Tartarus and return to the land of the living safely.
With this final task, Psyche faltered. Believing Eros would welcome her back if she used the beauty creams and makeup of the gods, she opened the box.
Instead of makeup, it contained a cursed sleep. Psyche finally fell to Aphrodite’s vengeance.
Eros, however, had recovered from his burn and now felt badly for being so harsh. He flew to Psyche’s rescue and awoke her from the magic sleep.
Eros took his appeal to Zeus. Zeus agreed to help not out of pity, but in the hopes that settling into married life would stop Eros from so often aiming his arrows at the king himself.
To pacify Aphrodite, he made Psyche immortal. Instead of a lowly human, Aphrodite could now say that her daughter-in-law was a goddess that was held in high regard.
Aphrodite ended her campaign against her son’s wife, and Psyche became revered as the goddess of the soul.
Aphrodite and the End of the Heroes
Even the gods weren’t immune to Aphrodite’s charms and Eros’s arrows. Only the virgin goddesses, Athena, Hestia, and Artemis, resisted them.
In that respect, Aphrodite was largely the reason the Age of Heroes came to be. The greatest heroes of legend were the children of gods and men.
While these unions produced many great heroes, they were also a source of pain for the gods. As mortals, the children born to human parents would one day die.
Some of these heroes performed feats so great that they were raised to Olympus to become gods in their own right. But many more were killed in battle, my misfortune, or even by old age.
Zeus in particular had been greatly affected by Aphrodite and Eros. His many affairs with goddesses, nymphs, and humans were well-known.
Zeus had seen many lovers and children die. Just as concerning for the king of the gods, his wife Hera’s constant jealousy was the source of almost endless conflict.
Zeus had hoped that the marriage of Eros would calm the young god’s recklessness. It was hoped that marriage and children would make him less likely to target the gods with his arrows.
Unfortunately, many of these targets were not chosen by Eros. It was Aphrodite who told her son where to aim his bow.
Knowing this, Zeus decided that the best way to end the cycle of mortal love affairs was to give Aphrodite a taste of the hurt it caused.
Zeus ordered Eros to prick his own mother with one of his arrows of love. The result was her affair with Anchises and the birth of Aeneas.
In having a mortal child of her own, Aphrodite learned first-hand the suffering she had inflicted on her peers. Her son survived the Trojan War and his later adventures with her help, but she knew he would eventually die.
Feeling the stress of having a mortal son, Aphrodite stopped making the gods fall in love with mortals.
Aeneas would be a member of the last generation of semi-divine heroes. After the Trojan War, the gods stopped mating with human women.
Aeneas and his peers would found great cities and rule over the kingdoms of the Mediterranean, but their children would be fully human.
Aphrodite’s mortal child marked the end of the Heroic Age in Greek mythology. The Iron Age, in both legend and archaeology, had officially begun.
Life was hard for men of the Iron Age, and the rewards of even the afterlife were fewer.
But of the gods, the end of the Age of Heroes was a relief.
No longer did they have to worry about the fates of their human sons and daughters. The gods would never again fight in human conflict, as they had at Troy, to protect their mortal children.
The Evolution of the Goddess
Throughout the ages, Aphrodite evolved to reflect the culture of the time. Her worship probably didn’t even begin in Greece.
She has much in common with the Phoenician goddess Astarte and the Sumerian Innana/Ishtar. Modern scholars believe that even her name may have Semitic roots.
The earliest Greek representations of Aphrodite show this link to ancient Middle Eastern goddesses. The similarities to Ishtar in art are so obvious that even 19th century scholars, skeptical that the East had any influence on Greek culture, had to concede that Aphrodite was linked to Ishtar.
Ishtar was a goddess of the sky, which is reflected in the story of Aphrodite’s birth from the primordial god of the heavens.
Like Ishtar, Aphrodite was also originally associated with war as well as love. While this aspect of her lessened over time, the myths still include the love she caused as the spark that ignited many wars and feuds.
Her early link to war is also apparent in her constant connection to Ares. Sparta, in particular, worshipped the goddess of love as the companion of war.
Many of Aphrodite’s stories have obvious predecessors in the mythology of the Near East. The legend of Adonis, for example, is strikingly similar to the Canaanite tale of Innana’s love for the beautiful mortal Dumuzid.
The Greeks themselves closely identified Aphrodite with the Egyptian goddesses Hathor and Isis. Ptolemaic rulers took Aphrodite as their patron goddess and queens were sometimes seen as her mortal incarnation.
Many versions of Aphrodite were worshipped in Greece. While her perfect beauty made her an emblem of everything unattainable and divine, as the goddess of sexuality was the patroness of prostitutes.
Aphrodite further changed as Greek culture spread to Rome. The people there combined her with their own goddess, Venus.
In the earliest days of Rome, Venus had been a goddess of bountiful crops and springtime. When she took on the attributes of Aphrodite, she became a deity that represented creation as well as sexuality.
The Romans saw Venus as their ancestor, emphasizing the story of Aeneas and expanding on their founding myth. Julius Caesar and the later emperors would claim direct lineage through Aeneas’s son.
From a beautiful but war-like goddess of the sky, Aphrodite became a distinctly political mother of an empire.
The Allure of Aphrodite
There are many obvious reasons why Aphrodite was one of the most popular Greek goddesses. She represented ideal female beauty, the pleasures of sexuality, and the joys of love.
Whether they sought a lasting romance or simple pleasure, nearly every man and woman had reason to seek Aphrodite’s favor. From great rulers to enslaved prostitutes, every level of society could look to Aphrodite.
But the goddess of love was a complicated one, and there was more to her gifts than what was obvious.
The Greeks of the Iron Age recognized that love was too often tied to pain. Love and conflict were inseparable.
To the Greeks, the love and beauty of Aphrodite would always be tied to the conflict of Ares.